The Integral Reviews: Paper 1 – Koenig (2011)

I am always open to accept different guest blogs and I therefore very happy that “Integral” has accepted my invitation to do a number of reviews of different papers that are relevant for the discussion of monetary theory and the development of Market Monetarism.

“Integral” is a regular commentator on the Market Monetarist blogs. Integral is a pseudonym and I am familiar with his identity.

We start our series with Integral’s review of Evan Koeing’s paper “Monetary Policy, Financial Stability, and the Distribution of Risk”. I recently also wrote a short (too short) comment on the paper so I am happy to see Integral elaborating on the paper, which I believe is a very important contribution to the discussion about NGDP level targeting. Marcus Nunes has also earlier commented on the paper.

Lars Christensen

The Integral Reviews: Papers 1 – Koenig (2011)
By “Integral”

Reviewed: Evan F. Koenig, “Monetary Policy, Financial Stability, and the Distribution of Risk.” FRB Dallas Working Paper No.1111

Consider the typical debt-deflation storyline. An adverse shock pushes the price level down (relative to expected trend) and increases consumers’ real debt load. This leads to defaults, liquidation, and general disruption of credit markets. This is often-times used as justification for the central bank to target inflation or the price level, to mitigate the effect of such shocks on financial markets.

Koenig takes a twist on this view that is quite at home to Market Monetarists: he notes that since nominal debts are paid out of nominal income, any adverse shock to income will lead to financial disruption, not just shocks to the price level. One conclusion he draws out is that the central bank can target nominal income to insulate the economy against debt-deflation spirals.

He also makes a theoretical point that will resonate well with Lars’ discussion of David Eagle’s work. Recall that Eagle views NGDP targeting as the optimal way to prevent the “monetary veil” from damaging the underlying “real” economy, which he views as an Arrow-Debreu type general equilibrium economy. Koenig makes a similar observation with respect to financial risk (debt-deflation) and in particular the distribution of risk.

In a world with complete, perfect capital markets, agents will sign Arrow-Debreu state-contingent contracts to fully insure themselves against future risk (think shocks). Money is a veil in the sense that fluctuations in the price level, and monetary policy more generally, have no effect on the distribution of risk. However, the real world is much incomplete in this regard and it is difficult to imagine that one could perfectly insure against future income, price, or nominal income uncertainty. Koenig thus dispenses of complete Arrow-Debreau contracts and introduces a single debt instrument, a nominal bond. This is where the central bank comes in.

Koenig considers two policy regimes: one in which the central bank commits to a pre-announced price-level target and one in which the central bank commits to a pre-announced nominal-income target. While the price-level target neutralizes uncertainty about the future price level, it provides no insulation against fluctuations in future output. He shows that a price level target will have adverse distributional consequences: harming debtors but helping creditors. Note that this is exactly the outcome that a price-level target is supposed to avoid. By contrast a central bank policy of targeting NGDP fully insulates the economy from the combination of price and income fluctuations. It will not only have no adverse distributional consequences, it obtain a consumption pattern across debtors and creditors which is identical to that which is obtained when capital markets are complete.

At an empirical level, Koenig documents that loan delinquency is more closely related to surprise changes in NGDP than in P, providing corroborating evidence that it is nominal income, not the price level, which matters for thinking about the sustainability of the nominal debt load.

Koenig’s conclusion is succinct:

“If there are complete markets in contingent claims, so that agents can insure themselves against fluctuations in aggregate output and the price level, then “money is a veil” as far as the allocation of risk is concerned: It doesn’t matter whether the monetary authority allows random variation in the price level or nominal value of output. If such insurance is not available, monetary policy will affect the allocation of risk. When debt obligations are fixed in nominal terms, a price-level target eliminates one source of risk (price-level shocks), but shifts the other risk (real output shocks) disproportionately onto debtors. A more balanced risk allocation is achieved by allowing the price level to move opposite to real output. An example is presented in which the risk allocation achieved by a nominal-income target reproduces exactly the allocation observed with complete capital markets. Empirically, measures of financial stress are much more strongly related to nominal-GDP surprises than to inflation surprises. These theoretical and empirical results call into question the debt-deflation argument for a price-level or inflation target. More generally, they point to the danger of evaluating alternative monetary policy rules using representative-agent models that have no meaningful role for debt.”

“The Great Recession: Market Failure or Government Failure?” BUY IT NOW!

Robert Hetzel’s new book “The Great Recession: Market Failure or Government Failure?” is now available for pre-order at Amazon.com (and Amazon.co.uk). Did you order it!? Needless to say I have ordered my version and hope it will arrive in my mailbox sometime around my birthday in early March!

Here is that official book description:

“Since publication of Robert L. Hetzel’s The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve (Cambridge University Press, 2008), the intellectual consensus that had characterized macroeconomics has disappeared. That consensus emphasized efficient markets, rational expectations, and the efficacy of the price system in assuring macroeconomic stability. The 2008-2009 recession not only destroyed the professional consensus about the kinds of models required to understand cyclical fluctuations but also revived the credit-cycle or asset-bubble explanations of recession that dominated thinking in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. These “market-disorder” views emphasize excessive risk taking in financial markets and the need for government regulation. The present book argues for the alternative “monetary-disorder” view of recessions. A review of cyclical instability over the last two centuries places the 2008-2009 recession in the monetary-disorder tradition, which focuses on the monetary instability created by central banks rather than on a boom-bust cycle in financial markets.”

I am very much looking forward to reading this book that I am pretty sure will have a very significant impact on the understanding of the causes of the Great Recession among economists and is likely to become a piece that economic historians will study in the future.

If you can’t wait then I recommend you to read Hetzel’s fantastic paper on the causes of the Great Recession: “Monetary Policy in the 2008–2009 Recession”

 

Chain of events in the boom-bust

In my recent post on “boom, bust and bubbles” I tried to sketch a monetary theory of bubbles. In this post I try to give an overview of what in my view seems to be the normal chain of events in boom-bust and in the formation of bubbles. This is not a theory, but rather what I consider to be some empirical regularities in the formation and bursting of bubbles – and the common policy mistakes made by central banks and governments.

Here is the story…

Chain of events in the boom-bust

– Positive supply shocks – often due to structural reforms that include supply side reforms and monetary stabilisation

– Supply side reforms leads to “supply deflation” – headline inflation drops both as a result of monetary stabiliisation and supply deflation. Real GDP growth picks up

First policy mistake: The drop in headline inflation leads the central bank to ease monetary policy (in a fixed exchange rate regime this happens “automatically”)

– Relative inflation: Demand inflation increases sharply versus supply inflation – this is often is visible in for example sharply rising property prices and a “profit bubble”

– Investors jump on the good story – fears are dismissed often on the background of some implicit guarantees – moral hazard problems are visible

– More signs of trouble: The positive supply shock starts to ease off – headline inflation increases due to higher “supply inflation”

– Forward-looking investors start to worry about the boom turning into a bust when monetary policy will be tightened

– Second policy mistake: Cheerleading policy makers dismisses fears of boom-bust and as a result they get behind the curve on events to come and encourage investors to jump on the bandwagon

– In a fixed exchange rate the exit of worried investors effectively lead to a tightening of monetary conditions as the specie-flow mechanism sharply reduces the money supply

– The bubble bursts: Demand inflation drops sharply – this will often be mostly visible in a collapse in property prices

– The drop in demand inflation triggers financial distress – money velocity drops and triggers a further tightening of monetary conditions

Third policy mistake: Policy makers realise that they made a mistake and now try to undo it “in hindsight” not realising that the setting has changed. Monetary conditions has already been tightened.

– Secondary deflation hits. Demand prices and NGDP drops below the pre-boom trend. Real GDP drops strongly, unemployment spikes

Forth policy mistake: Monetary policy is kept tight – often because a fixed exchange rate regime is defended or because the central bank believes that monetary policy already is loose because interest rates are low

– A “forced” balance sheet recession takes place (it is NOT a Austrian style balance sheet recession…) – overly tight monetary policy forces investors and households through an unnecessary Fisherian debt-deflation

– Real GDP growth remains lackluster despite the initial financial distress easing. This is NOT due to an unavoidable deleveraging, but is a result of too tight monetary policy, but also because the positive supply shock that sat the entire process in motion has eased off.

-The country emerges from crisis when prices and wages have adjusted down or more likely when monetary policy finally is ease – for fixed exchange rate countries when the peg is given up

Boom, bust and bubbles

Recently it has gotten quite a bit of attention that some investors believe that there is a bubble in the Chinese property market and we will be heading for a bust soon and the fact that I recently visited Dubai have made me think of how to explain bubbles and if there is such a thing as bubbles in the first bubbles.

I must say I have some experience with bubbles. In 2006 I co-authoured a paper on the Icelandic economy where we forecasted a bust of the Icelandic bubble – I don’t think we called it a bubble, but it was pretty clear that that is what we meant it was. And in 2007 I co-authored a number of papers calling a bust to the bubbles in certain Central and Eastern European economies – most notably the Baltic economies. While I am proud to have gotten it right – both Iceland and the Baltic States went through major economic and financial crisis – I nonetheless still feel that I am not entire sure why I got it right. I am the first to admit that there certainly quite a bit of luck involved (never underestimate the importance of luck). Things could easily have gone much different. However, I do not doubt that the fact that monetary conditions were excessive loose played a key role both in the case of Iceland and in the Baltic States. I have since come to realise that moral hazard among investors undoubtedly played a key role in these bubbles. But most of all my conclusion is that the formation of bubbles is a complicated process where a number of factors play together to lead to bubbles. At the core of these “accidents”, however, is a chain of monetary policy mistakes.

What is bubbles? And do they really exist? 

If one follows the financial media one would nearly on a daily basis hear about “bubbles” in that and that market. Hence, financial journalists clearly have a tendency to see bubbles everywhere – and so do some economists especially those of us who work in the financial sector where “airtime” is important. However, the fact is that what really could be considered as bubbles are quite rare. The fact that all the bubble-thinkers can mention the South Sea bubble or the Dutch Tulip bubble of 1637 that happened hundreds years ago is a pretty good illustration of this. If bubbles really were this common then we would have hundreds of cases to study. We don’t have that. That to me this indicates that bubbles do not form easily – they are rare and form as a consequence of a complicated process of random events that play together in a complicated unpredictable process.

I think in general that it is wrong to see any increase in assets prices that is later corrected as a bubble. Obviously investors make mistakes. We after all live in an uncertain world. Mistakes are not bubbles. We can only talk about bubbles if most investors make the same mistakes at the same time.

Economists do not have a commonly accepted description of what a bubble is and this is probably again because bubbles are so relatively rare. But let me try to give a definitions. I my view bubbles are significant economic wide misallocation of labour and capital that last for a certain period and then is followed by an unwinding of this misallocation (we could also call this boom-bust). In that sense communist Soviet Union was a major bubble. That also illustrates that distortion of  relative prices is at the centre of the description and formation of bubbles.

Below I will try to sketch a monetary based theory of bubbles – and here the word sketch is important because I am not actually sure that there really can be formulated a theory of bubbles as they are “outliers” rather than the norm in free market economies.

The starting point – good things happen

In my view the starting point for the formation of bubbles actually is that something good happens. Most examples of “bubbles” (or quasi-bubbles) we can find with economic wide impact have been in Emerging Markets. A good example is the boom in the South East Asian economies in the early 1990s or the boom in Southern Europe and Central and Eastern European during the 2000s. All these economies saw significant structural reforms combined with some kind of monetary stabilisation, but also later on boom-bust.

Take for example Latvia that became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After independence Latvia underwent serious structural reforms and the transformation from planned economy to a free market economy happened relatively fast. This lead to a massively positive supply shock. Furthermore, a quasi-currency board was implemented early on. The positive supply shock (which played out over years) and the monetary stabilisation through the currency board regime brought inflation down and (initially) under control. So the starting point for what later became a massive misallocation of resources started out with a lot of good things happening.

Monetary policy and “relative inflation”

As the stabilisation and reform phase plays out the initial problems start to emerge. The problem is that the monetary policies that initially were stabilising soon becomes destabilising and here the distinction between “demand inflation” and “supply inflation” is key (See my discussion decomposion demand and supply inflation here). Often countries in Emerging Markets with underdeveloped financial markets will choose to fix their currency to more stable country’s currency – for example the US dollar or in the old days the D-mark – but a policy of inflation targeting has also in recent years been popular.

These policies often succeed in bringing nominal stability to begin with, but because the central bank directly or indirectly target headline inflation monetary policy is eased when positive supply shocks help curb inflationary pressures. What emerges is what Austrian economists has termed “relative inflation” – while headline inflation remains “under control” demand inflation (the inflation created by monetary policy) increases while supply inflation drops or even turn into supply deflation. This is a consequence of either a fixed exchange rate policy or an inflation targeting policy where headline inflation rather than demand inflation is targeted.

My view on relative inflation has to a very large extent been influenced by George Selgin’s work – see for example George’s excellent little book “Less than zero” for a discussion of relative inflation. I think, however, that I am slightly less concerned about the dangers of relative inflation than Selgin is and I would probably stress that relative inflation alone can not explain bubbles. It is a key ingredient in the formation of bubbles, but rarely the only ingredient.

Some – George Selgin for example (see here) – would argue that there was a significant rise in relatively inflation in the US prior to 2008. I am somewhat skeptical about this as I can not find it in my own decompostion of the inflation data and NGDP did not really increase above it’s 5-5.5% trend in the period just prior to 2008. However, a better candidate for rising relative inflation having played a role in the formation of a bubble in my view is the IT-bubble in the late 1990s that finally bursted in 2001, but I am even skeptical about this. For a good discussion of this see David Beckworth innovative Ph.D. dissertation from 2003.

There are, however, much more obvious candidates. While the I do not necessarily think US monetary policy was excessively loose in terms of the US economy it might have been too loose for everybody else and the dollar’s role as a international reserve currency might very well have exported loose monetary policy to other countries. That probably – combined with policy mistakes in Europe and easy Chinese monetary policy – lead to excessive loose monetary conditions globally which added to excessive risk taking globally (including in the US).

The Latvian bubble – an illustration of the dangers of relative inflation

I have already mentioned the cases of Iceland and the Baltic States. These examples are pretty clear examples of excessive easy monetary conditions leading to boom-bust. The graph below shows my decompostion of Latvian inflation based on a Quasi-Real Price Index for Latvia.

It is very clear from the graph that Latvia demand inflation starts to pick up significantly around 2004, but headline inflation is to some extent contained by the fact that supply deflation becomes more and more clear. It is no coincidence that this happens around 2004 as that was the year Latvia joined the EU and opened its markets further to foreign competition and investments – the positive impact on the economy is visible in the form of supply deflation. However, due to Latvia’s fixed exchange rate policy the positive supply shock did not lead to a stronger currency, but rather to an increase in demand inflation. This undoubtedly was a clear reason for the extreme misallocation of capital and labour in the Latvian economy in 2005-8.

The fact that headline inflation was kept down by a positive supply shock probably help “confuse” investors and policy makers alike and it was only when the positive supply shock started to ease off in 2006-7 that investors got alarmed.

Hence, here a Selginian explanation for the boom-bust seems to be a lot more obvious than for the US.

The role of Moral Hazard – policy makers as “cheerleaders of the boom”

To me it is pretty clear that relative inflation will have to be at the centre of a monetary theory of bubbles. However, I don’t think that relative inflation alone can explain bubbles like the one we saw in the Latvia. A very important reason for this is the fact that it took so relatively long for investors to acknowledge that something wrong in the Latvian economy. Why did they not recognise it earlier? I think that moral hazard played a role. Investors full well understood that there was a serious problem with strongly rising demand inflation and misallocation of capital and labour, but at the same time it was clear that Latvia seemed to be on the direct track to euro adoption within a relatively few years (yes, that was the clear expectation in 2005-6). As a result investors bet that if something would go wrong then Latvia would probably be bailed out by the EU and/or the Nordic governments and this is in fact what happened. Hence, investors with rational expectations rightly expected a bailout of Latvia if the worst-case scenario played out.
The Latvian case is certainly not unique. Robert Hetzel has made a forcefull argument in his excellent paper “Should Increased Regulation of Bank Risk Taking Come from Regulators or from the Market?” that moral hazard played a key role in the Asian crisis. Here is Hetzel:

“In early 1995, the Treasury with the Exchange Stabilization Fund, the Fed with swap accounts, and the IMF had bailed out international investors holding Mexican Tesobonos (Mexican government debt denominated in dollars) who were fleeing a Mexico rendered unstable by political turmoil. That bailout created the assumption that the United States would intervene to prevent financial collapse in its strategic allies. Russia was included as “too nuclear” to fail. Subsequently, large banks increased dramatically their short-term lending to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea. The Asia crisis emerged when the overvalued, pegged exchange rates of these countries collapsed revealing an insolvent banking system. Because of the size of the insolvencies as a fraction of the affected countries GDP, the prevailing TBTF assumption that Asian countries would bail out their banking systems suddenly disappeared.”

I would further add that I think policy makers often act as “cheerleaders of the boom” in the sense that they would dismiss warnings from analysts and market participants that something is wrong in the economy and often they are being supported by international institutions like the IMF. This clearly “helps” investors (and households) becoming more rationally ignorant or even rationally irrational about the “obvious” risks (See Bryan Caplan’s discussion of rational ignorance and rational irrationality here.)

Policy recommendation: Introduce NGDP level targeting

Yes, yes we might as well get out our hammer and say that the best way to avoid bubbles is to target the NGDP level. So why is that? Well, as I argued above a key ingredient in the creation of bubbles was relative inflation – that demand inflation rose without headline inflation increasing. With NGDP level targeting the central bank will indirectly target a level for demand prices – what I have called a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). This clearly would reduce the risk of misallocation due to confusion of demand and supply shocks.

It is often argued that central banks should in some way target asset prices to avoid bubbles. The major problem with this is that it assumes that the central bank can spot bubbles that market participants fail to spot. This is further ironic as it is exactly the central banks’ overly loose monetary policy which is likely at the core of the formation of bubbles. Further, if the central bank targets the NGDP level then the potential negative impact on money velocity of potential bubbles bursting will be counteracted by an increase in the money supply and hence any negative macroeconomic impact of the bubble bursting will be limited. Hence, it makes much more sense for central banks to significantly reduce the risk of bubbles by targeting the NGDP level than to trying to prick the bubbles.NGDP targeting reduces the risk of bubbles and also reduces the destabilising impact when the bubbles bursts.

Finally it goes without saying that moral hazard should be avoided, but here the solutions seems to be much harder to find and most likely involve fundamental institutional (some would argue constitutional) reforms.

But lets not worry too much about bubbles

As I stated above the bubbles are in reality rather rare and there is therefore in general no reason to worry too much about bubbles. That I think particularly is the case at the moment where overly tight monetary policy rather overly loose monetary policy. Furthermore, contrary to what some have argued the introduction – which effective in the present situation would equate monetary easing in for example the US or the euro zone – does not increase the risk of bubbles, but rather it reduces the risk of future bubbles significantly. That said, there is no doubt that the kind of bailouts that we have see of certain European governments and banks have increased the risk of moral hazard and that is certainly problematic. But again if monetary policy had follow a NGDP rule in the US and Europe the crisis would have been significantly smaller in the first place and bailouts would therefore not have been “necessary”.

——

PS I started out mentioning the possible bursting of the Chinese property bubble. I have no plans to write on that topic at the moment, but have a look at two rather scary comments from Patrick Chovanec:

“China Data, Part 1A: More on Property Downturn”
“Foreign Affairs: China’s Real Estate Crash”

 

 



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